The Groups Fighting for Girls’ Education in India

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As the country grows rapidly, new initiatives are working against a host of obstacles in the hope of keeping young women in school.

JAISALMER, INDIA—Once a year, the history lecturer Vijay Kumar Ballani and his colleagues go door-to-door in this rural village, imploring parents to send their children to a cinderblock complex that lacks classroom space, bathrooms, and desks.  He gives the same stock speech.

“Education is free, lunch is free, books are free, sanitary napkins are free,’’ Ballani tells parents, urging them to visit this government-run school on the edge of the Thar Desert, where, on a warm day late last spring, 12 teachers were overseeing the education of 260 students from first grade through high school. “Your kids will have a better life if they are educated. No one will cheat you.”

Ballani, known as “Mr. Desert’’ for his knowledge of this area, also gives tours of the golden forts and palaces of Rajasthan when he isn’t teaching or pushing villagers to keep children in school. Not surprisingly, he has better luck with boys; girls are too often needed by their families to toil in fields or care for younger children, especially in rural areas.

Now change, while slow, is coming to this country that has long left females behind, particularly here in Rajasthan, where only 52.66 percent are literate and some 350,000 are not in school, according to Educate Girls, a nonprofit aimed at getting more rural girls into classrooms. Less than half of them finish 10th grade in this pocket of northwestern India.

Here and elsewhere in this rapidly growing country, girls are increasingly the focus of new initiatives aimed at keeping them in school. All face obstacles.

The school where Ballani teaches has few amenities. There’s no playground, gym, or running water, and very little technology. And despite India’s push to guarantee a good education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14 under the country’s Right to Education Act of 2009, most students will not finish school.

“They are too poor—their parents want them to work,’’ Ballani said, while showing a visitor in and out of dusty classrooms at his school, GSSS Damodora, where students dressed in powder-blue uniforms sat on the floor awaiting instruction.

A man stands in front of a doorway, gesturing.
Vijay Ballani, also known as Mr. Desert, goes door-to- door in the Jaisalmer region to encourage parents to send their children to school. (Kim Palmer / The Hechinger Report)

About 65 percent of India’s students attend similar government schools, many with dismal outcomes. Just under three-quarters of students in rural India can’t subtract two-digit numbers by grade three, and only half of grade five students can read at a second-grade level, according to a recent World Bank report.  The slow pace of improvement in India’s schools some 70 years after the country gained independence from Britain remains a source of frustration, but has given way in recent years to a range of public and private initiatives aimed at boosting attendance, literacy, and the number of girls who attend school.

New literacy efforts are evolving via NGO’s like Pratham, whose mission is “every child in school and learning well,” while Round Table India claims to have builtone classroom a day for the last 10 years, including a new community schoolserving an isolated tribal village. A summer coding camp is introducing Indian girls to computers, while new performance-based contracts known as social impact bonds are being introduced to improve learning and get more girls in schools. The government is also taking steps to provide additional non-school support (like bicycles to help students get there), and is moving toward newpartnerships and private takeovers aimed at improving teacher training and school conditions.

Still, increasing numbers of families are opting out of government schools in favor of low-cost private education options, while visionary educators are reimagining new solutions, especially for girls. In the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, one school is changing lives in an area where more than 599 million people live below the poverty line and nearly 10 percent of girls are out of school. In rural Rajasthan, construction will soon be underway for a new all-girls school that will showcase local goods and heritage handiwork in this former medieval-trading center, while combining education and economic development for local women.

Students sit on the floor in a classroom.
Students attend a government school in Jaisalmer.  (Kim Palmer / The Hechinger Report)

Just a few miles away from where Ballani teaches, Michael Daube is raising money for the new girls’ school and economic center in Jaisalmer. The charismatic American artist and founder of a New York-based non profit recently broke ground for the Rani Ratnavati Girls School, named for a royal family member credited with saving the Jaisalmer Fort.

The center will rise on a dusty desert site, in a region where some 9.7 percent of girls aged 11-14 are out of school.

“Girls’ education is very low on the list of priorities in India, and rural Rajasthan fares near the bottom,’’ said Daube, who heads an organization known as CITTA, which builds and supports development of schools and hospitals in India.

On an early spring day, Daube, dressed in flowing white, described his vision for a cooperative where 400 girls will study and work alongside their mothers and grandmothers, next to a community center that showcases the intricate hand-sewn rugs, scarves, and saris for which the region is known. Local musicians played while the royal family of Jaisalmer looked out at the barren former Indian heritage site, next to government land Daube hopes to acquire. “A small project can have a global impact,’’ Daube said.

The Manhattan architect Diane Kellogg is designing the complex, which will include an exhibition hall for female artists to display and sell their products. Girls will attend classes while local women weave and embroider their delicate handicrafts. Daube says he has drawn financial support from brands such as Kate Spade, Barneys, and J. Crew, which have pledged to showcase projects from the women’s center as a way of keeping their faded heritage alive. Patchwork artistSantosh Rathi says he’ll work alongside them.

A group of girls sit on the floor.
Students at a village school gather for a performance. (Liz Willen / The Hechinger Report)
“I will provide the old embroidered pieces so people know they existed,’’ Rathi said after the groundbreaking ceremony, pointing to quilts specially crafted to be among goods a bride’s family traditionally gives to a bridegroom’s family as part of a dowry.  “It will help keep these traditions alive and make them [the women] economically powerful.’’

CITTA has experience building both a hospital and a school in Juanga, a village in India, which now has 360 students from kindergarten through 10th grade. The school goes beyond educating children: It also teaches villagers hands-on skills like nutrition, money management, and animal husbandry. The royal family of Jaisalmer is helping with some costs; Daube and CITTA are holding fundraisersfor the more than $300,000 needed to build the Rani Ratnavati school and hope it will become self-sustaining within five years.

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A privately funded all-girls high school is also reporting great success in northern India. In 2003, the Prerna Girls School began providing a low-cost option that has served over 5,000 girls from impoverished families. In her new book, Reaching for the Sky, Empowering Girls Through Education, the author and Brookings fellowUrvashi Sahni weaves in stories of many of the girls, including graduate Aarti Singh, now 25 with a master’s degree and dreams of becoming a professor.

When she first heard about Prerna, which means inspiration in English, Singh had one question: “Do they beat you?’’ That abuse had been part of her experience at a local village school, where teachers showed up sporadically. Singh never learned to take an exam and fell way behind. She is the eldest of five girls; her mother married at 16 and is illiterate. Her father drank and beat her mother and siblings so regularly that Singh’s mother once threatened to poison all her children and herself to end their misery.

Although she liked studying, Singh was discouraged from attending because it wasn’t considered safe. When her family moved to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, they stayed in an abandoned room and moved to a local hospital at night, where they would search for empty beds. Everything changed when Singh got to Prerna. “I felt like I belonged … you can go to your teacher and talk to them about your personal problems. Discussing our lives was part of being in school,” she recounts in Reaching for the Sky.

Sahni, who also works closely with government schools on an advisory council, is often asked her opinion on improving education for girls in India. She’s convinced that having schools recognize the trauma and poverty inherent in their lives is a start, particularly in a country stratified by gender, religion, and a caste systemthat still permeates daily life.

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